Gauguin’s Predatory Colonial Gaze

Is it fair to use contemporary standards to judge a man who died 116 years ago?

Paul Gauguin, “The Ancestors of Tehamana or Tehamana Has Many Parents (Merahi metua no Tehamana) (1893), oil on canvas, 76.3 × 54.3 cm, The Art Institute of Chicago, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Charles Deering McCormick, © The Art Institute of Chicago

LONDON — It is difficult not to walk out of the National Gallery’s Gauguin Portraits without harboring feelings of distaste for and even revulsion towards this puffed-up elf of a Frenchman.

Gauguin, on the evidence of this show, was a monstrous sexual predator, a near-perfect embodiment of the malignly lubricious male gaze, a man from France who took himself off to the French colonies, and not only sexually exploited many of the women he saw there, but also did his best to exoticize them in his paintings, to lay them out sideways, scantily clothed, in dreamy readiness for everyone-knows-what, and surround them with inscrutable ancestral gewgaws and snatches of mumbo-jumbo writing, all in the service of creating a seductively alluring species of art for mock-serious-minded, top-hatted collectors in Paris. Or so he hoped.

Although he had first gone to Tahiti in 1891 in pursuit of some paradisally unspoiled Otherwhere, it was not to be. The place was already partly ruined. What is more, many others had gone before him — including those tedious Christian missionaries, who forced many local women to dress much more modestly.

Paul Gauguin, “Young Breton Woman” (1889), oil on canvas, 46 × 38 cm, private collection, photo: Ian Lefebvre, © photo courtesy of the owner

Gauguin preferred them in more traditional dress, or in little or no dress at all. What is more, he had no particular desire to isolate himself from Paris, around which the world turned and turned (as it does — to a degree — even now) in giddy homage to its cultural superiority. He was in constant touch with those who dealt in his art. He knew about money. He had been a money man himself. To the very end of his life, he was in pursuit of a vision that would prove salable, and if it meant tricking out a Breton peasant or a fragile Tahitian maid in traditional dress, so be it.

On the other hand, is it really fair to judge in such terms a man who died one hundred and sixteen years ago? Do his transgressions have anything whatsoever to do with how we value him as a painter now? If the best of Gauguin’s work seems to be a triumph of the new painting — the rejection of academic restraints of the kind that had almost hobbled Delacroix, and a use of color more brilliantly and ferociously emboldened than perhaps ever before — does this automatically seal him off from crude criticism of this kind?

In short, has the word Genius (spoken in hushed tones) flung a cordon sanitaire around him? Are we not, in fact, being tediously and modishly moralistic, and in fact doing precisely what we might have condemned 19th-century critics for doing?

Paul Gauguin, “Self Portrait with Yellow Christ” (1890-1891), oil on canvas, 38.1 x 45.7 cm, Musée d’Orsay, Paris, acquired by the Musées nationaux with the participation of Philippe Meyer and a Japanese patron, coordinated by the newspaper Nikkei, 1994. © RMN-Grand Palais (musée d’Orsay) / René-Gabriel Ojéda

Yes and no. The fact is that we are alert and acutely sensitive to the sexual exploitation of women as never before, and, given that we are alive in the present, this cannot but feed into our judgment of Gauguin’s paintings now.

The fact is that we feel a little queasy in the presence of his inadequacies as a human being from first to last. They shout back at us. As if to make the point, the first gallery of the current show includes a display of profoundly unflattering self-portraits. We see his brutish arrogance from the start. He had no wish to flatter anyone – and especially not himself.

Is this self-obsession or self-absorption? Perhaps a little of both. The gaze looks furtive, scheming, almost as if he is eavesdropping upon himself, and takes little pleasure in what he is discovering.

In a “Self-Portrait with Yellow Christ” (1890-91), it is Gauguin himself who dominates the scene, a commandingly physical presence beside a crucified Christ who resembles a wan, helplessly weak if not jaundiced adjunct to the main event, a symbol to be used or exploited as the need arises.

Paul Gauguin, “Self portrait near Golgotha” (1896), oil on canvas, 75.5 × 63 cm, © Museu de Arte de São Paulo Assis Chateaubriand, São Paulo, Brazil

What then are the principal strengths and weaknesses of this show? For a start, and given that the National Gallery will extract £22 from each of its visitors (if they are paying full price), actual masterpieces feel a little thin on the ground.

There are too many make-weights here, paintings which are not quite good enough, paintings that we probably want to see because they are undeniably by Paul Gauguin, but not what we might have yearned to come to see and even expected to see, given the promise of such a show as this one, and the fanfare that has surrounded its opening. Why? Why? Then there is the matter of a small sleight of hand. What exactly is a portrait? The least that anyone might expect of an object described as a portrait by Gauguin is an image of a human being such as you or me.

Not necessarily so in this exhibition, where the word “portraits” has been stretched unnaturally to include vases of flowers. This happens in a gallery called Surrogate Portraits. Surrogate portraits, according to the curators of this show, can include a vase of, say, sunflowers, because sunflowers recall the presence in Gauguin’s life of another testy man called Vincent van Gogh, and we will be pleased to be reminded of that.

Paul Gauguin, “Still Life with ‘Hope’” (1901), oil on canvas, 66 × 77 cm, private collection – Milano, Italy, © photo courtesy of the owner

Gauguin and Van Gogh spent almost three tumultuous months living together in Arles in 1883, hoping to found an artists’ colony, a utopian project which might have succeeded had its wishful creators not been two impossibly difficult human beings called Van Gogh and Gauguin, who got on as well as two pieces of sandpaper rubbed together very hard, and at high speed.

Having said that, although Gauguin’s still lifes of flowers do not have eyes or a nose, they are sometimes very fine paintings indeed (look hard at the one drearily entitled “Bouquet of Flowers” (1901-2), for example; the blooms are so restless, so fleshy, so tousled, so unruly). Who exactly does that remind us of, I wonder?

Even more haunting is “Still Life with Hope” (1901), a painting of dying sunflowers — Gauguin had in fact been an early champion of Van Gogh’s great cycle of sunflower paintings. Years after the rancor, and more than a decade after the death of Van Gogh himself, his old friend and antagonist evidently harbored a residual affection.

Gauguin Portraits continues at the National Gallery (Trafalgar Square, Charing Cross, London) through January 26, 2020.

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